by Susan Halpern
[dropcap]D [/dropcap]o you ever wonder about the young people you see sitting on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley? Do you ever walk through People’s Park and see the people, young and old, who sleep there and wonder how it is to live like that?
Four bold women in 2002 were walking downtown and noting this situation, and feeling the need of a serious long-term solution that would make a big difference in Berkeley. Their concerns led to the founding of YEAH! (Youth Emergency, Advocacy, and Housing), the only shelter for transitional-age youth who are homeless in Berkeley.
When I tell people in Berkeley that I have been volunteering at this shelter for the past eight years, many have no awareness that it even exists. Yet it is here, and has been here for nine years, serving youth ages 18 to 25, who would otherwise be homeless. YEAH! provides a necessary jumping off place from which youth can move forward into their lives, instead of moving to an adult shelter.
Take the situation of D. She ran away from her home and lived on the streets of Berkeley three separate times before she found YEAH! When her single parent failed to show up, and there was no food in the house and the heat had been turned off, D. left to find her own way.
The third time she was on the street, the youth worker from YEAH! met her in People’s Park and told her about the YEAH! youth shelter.
“We have a safe, warm, dry place for you to sleep,” he told her. “There are other young people there, counselors to talk to, staff to keep you safe, a good hot dinner, showers, laundry, pads, blankets, pillows, sheets, and then a hot breakfast. It is in a church on University Avenue. We hope you will come tonight and be with us. We want to welcome you, introduce you to some other young people, and get to know you.”
D. came to the shelter and then came back every night for the rest of the winter. Late in the season, on the night of the talent show, she referred to YEAH! as “my home.” A pad on the floor, kind strangers, good food, and the shelter became more of a home than D. had ever known.
Many participants from Berkeley have helped to build YEAH!, tended it, fed the youth, and donated time, energy and money to the endeavor. They bring their warmth, their respect, and their desire to make a difference. The Lutheran Church of the Cross, which houses the shelter, has a commitment to making a difference for people who would otherwise live outside. YEAH! is their commitment.
Without the original, ongoing, and increasing support of the City of Berkeley, YEAH! would not exist. Were it not for the 150 volunteers who cook and serve dinner and breakfast for 30 youth day after day, YEAH! would not exist.
Were it not for the small, dedicated staff of counselors, social workers, night staff, administrators, Lutheran job corps workers, social work interns, and church communities, there would be no YEAH!
Also important is our community of individual donors, companies, banks, ROOF and BAR, foundations, and generous individual donors, without whom there would be no YEAH! The youth thank you, and the board thanks you.
At a time when families are losing their homes, when the foster system is ill-equipped to deal with all the youth who arrive at the age of independence, when our schools are not reliably containing our young people, the ones who suffer most, whose future is most jeopardized, are these young people who, without support, education, skills, and a community, have to fend for themselves.
Many of the youth are traumatized by family situations, hard experiences on the street, and even sometimes, foster care. Their experiences of caring for others, and being cared for, are limited. We want to make a difference. Most years, even in the face of deeply limited housing opportunities, we manage to offer housing to at least half of the youth who stay with us.
Many of the young people have physical or mental health problems, or are dealing with addiction. There is insufficient support and services for them, but there is some. Our job is to find the services that suit each individual and connect him or her in a way that works for the youth, and is not just another failure in their lives.
In spite of everything, many of the youth come to us with dreams, and those dreams need to be fulfilled. Hope needs to be restored; faith in the system needs to grow. One person at a time, one connection to a counselor, a therapist, a volunteer, or a staff person can make all the difference. We see it over and over again.
Over the years, we shape and hone our programs, measuring what is effective. Then we put more time, energy, staff, and resources into those, and for those that prove not particularly beneficial, we let them drop. This year, we increased the one-on-one time with trained staff, as that kind of interaction appears to promote and sustain the kinds of behaviors that the youth want for themselves.
As I watch the organization grow and my part in it changes, I am increasingly filled with awe at how much some people give, and how much the youth grow, and give back by stepping into adult lives.
Susan Halpern, MSW, is an author and therapist.